A morning story, in which the nature of purpose and determination is explored, while essayists and poets stick their noses in. We discover what may or may not belong in a suitcase.
The Long Read:
There is a woman that works at the train station. My window overlooks the tracks and I see her in the morning, after the last commuter train has passed by. She sweeps and washes the sidewalks. She has a special long-handled tool she uses to scrape up discarded gum. She is dedicated to this task I can see, working diligently in small sections. Thorough. While she works she talks on her mobile phone. The sound of her words float up to me from the platform.
Beyond her are the railway tracks. Beyond the tracks, the cottonwoods that line the river and then the river itself, drifting by blue-green.
It is the lupines that catch my eye. Blooming tall and purple along the sidings of the railroad tracks. Daisies, too, and buttercups open their faces to the sun. There, among the dandelions and grasses, they take their turn.
I would like to write that I am one with the river, the lupines, the woman sweeping the sidewalk, but I do not feel that. They seem untroubled to me, or at least sure in their purpose – to flow, to bloom, to sweep.
I am more like the homeless man I spy one morning early, when all is quiet, before the first commuter train comes whizzing down the track, breaking open the morning with its bells and whistles. Before the commuters gather on the sidewalk in the dawn, eyes glued firmly to their smartphones, or hands in pockets, hunched grumpily into their suitcoats. Before the sweeping and washing that follows.
I am spending my morning with tea and Alfred DePew, reading his series of stories, A Wedding Song for Poorer People. I am peaceful, although lately I am more frequently feeling that little ripple that comes up from inside, starting somewhere near the stomach, letting us know something is up.
I am patient with the ripple and process, knowing all will be revealed, one way or the other, and in the meantime I have the companionship of wordsmiths - poets and writers in abundance, a big chair, a plush housecoat.
DePew’s words are beautiful and rise clean and certain from the page. I know Alfred, relatively well actually, and I have no trouble disengaging from my knowing of him to become engrossed in the stories he is so ably telling.
It is the sound of wheels on the sidewalk outside that draws my attention away from his clear words. At first I think it must be a skateboarder, up before dawn, startling the birds. When I look, I see a man, a vagrant, pulling a two-wheeled suitcase. He walks with drive, head jutted forward, arms straight behind him. He stops near the station and opens his bag on the sidewalk.
Tilting his head to one side staring at the black rectangle on the ground, he appears poised for action. He has the stillness of a diver about to leap into the air.
As I watch, he breaks pose and begins trying to put himself into the suitcase. This is difficult. It is difficult because a human, at least a whole one with moving parts, isn’t made to fit into a suitcase. Still, he tries, bending his arms and legs this way and that, an unwieldy tangle. He tries bending his knees to his chest and still his head and shoulders stick out. No matter which way he attempts it he cannot pull the suitcase lid over his torso.
While it is a large suitcase, it will not accommodate his needs. He begins to flail, and then he stops. A new idea occurs, and he tumbles awkwardly out of the suitcase, and standing on the sidewalk, begins removing his clothes. He is systematic, piling the garments up beside the suitcase. Neatly, he places his shoes beside the pile.
Stripped down, he makes a pathetic picture. Bony arms and knees, frail wrists, ankles, and neck ringed with dirt. His genitals are grey, the remainder of his body strangely white. Naked, he begins folding himself into the bag again. There is something methodical about the way he struggles as he goes about this.
I recognize the determination. It is the ambition of addiction. A resolve to stay on task and find a way to do the impossible, the fortitude it takes to find a bottle, a hit, a needle, a poem. No matter how ridiculous the destination, a resolute mind will devise a complicated path, chart a course and not deviate. Something as preposterous as trying to put oneself in a suitcase becomes a serious enterprise.
Even without his clothes, the situation is hopeless. He simply cannot fold and pleat himself into a shape that will fit inside his bag. He untangles his limbs from their distorted positions and stands once more, discouraged, on the sidewalk.
He is thinking. His shaggy head turns back and forth between the suitcase and the pile of clothes, surveying his effects. He turns, puts his hands on his hips and stares out across the tracks at the river. A morning bird calls. He knows there is a piece to the puzzle missing. The purple lupines wait.
Almost the way it happens in the comic books, a light bulb seems to appear over his head and he turns suddenly, alight with purpose. In a fever, he begins jamming his clothes into the bag, zippering it shut with a flourish.
That finished, he grips the bag by the handle and, still naked, trundles on. The suitcase wheels clatter down the sidewalk and on into the distance. A dark sock lies curled on the curb.
Away, away down the track I hear the faint first whistle of the morning train.
I turn back to my book. Who else do I read in the morning, besides DePew? Joan Didion, Mary Oliver, Amy Hale Auker. They are essayists and poets, artists and cowboys, packing words into pages, stripping down, rearranging their belongings, rich or meagre.
We write because we must, knowing the sweepers will come and attend to their tasks, diligent. The lupines will bloom by the tracks and rivers and trains will carry more stories our way. We press and fold our words again and again, this way and that, figuring out what is needed on the journey, and what may be left behind.
Writers. We are naked too, pulling our suitcases filled with tiny failures, behind us as we go.